Two friends, with a four-year-old in tow, want to visit plantations, go antiquing, try Southern food—and find the perfect cupcake.
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DEAR TRIP COACH...
I'm heading to Charleston and Savannah for a girls' getaway with my friend Michelle and her 4-year-old daughter, Gabby. We're looking for activities and restaurants that are family-friendly without being exclusively kid-oriented. Tracy Dallas, Seattle, Wash.
"We only have four days, but we don't want to feel rushed. What areas should we focus on in each city?"
Stick to the historic neighborhoods. In Charleston, start at Waterfront Park, in the heart of downtown. There's a swimsuit-worthy fountain for Gabby to splash in, a covered boardwalk where you can kick back on porch swings, and paths along the Cooper River that are lined with palms and live oaks. Wander southwest through the park toward The Battery, an area with columned mansions and pastel dollhouse-like homes, plus a park with cannons from the Civil War. From White Point Gardens, within The Battery, take Church Street toward Broad Street and peek into some of the city's most charming private courtyards and gardens.
In Savannah, begin where Broughton and Bull streets meet and head south down Bull to pass through the town squares, peppered with sculptures, benches, and plantings, and flanked by town houses, shops, and cafés. After Monterey Square, at Bull and Gordon streets, relax in Forsyth Park. The 30-acre expanse of oak-canopied paths and green spaces still has its original two-tiered cast-iron fountain from the 1850s.
"Gabby loves horses, so a carriage ride would be fun."
From its barn at 14 Anson Street, Old South Carriage Company gives Charleston tours every 20 to 30 minutes (843/723-9712, oldsouthcarriage.com, $21, $13 kids). Historic Savannah Carriage Tours leave from the Hyatt Regency, at West Bay and Bull streets, on the hour on weekdays and twice an hour on weekends (912/443-9333, savannahcarriage.com, $20, $9 kids).
"We're willing to drive a little out of the way to see plantations. Which ones do you recommend?"
Of the two cities, Charleston has more picturesque plantations, and Middleton Place is the crown jewel. Most of the main house was destroyed during the Civil War and never rebuilt, but the 65 acres—with the oldest landscaped gardens in the country—are impeccably kept. General admission gets you access to the grounds, including the riverfront terraces, Butterfly Lakes (so named because they look like butterfly wings), marble sculptures, reflection pool, slavery exhibit, and the one still-standing wing of the old manor. Gabby will love the 45-minute carriage tour (4300 Ashley River Rd./ Hwy. 61, 800/782-3608, middletonplace.org, $25, $5 kids, carriage tour $15).
A fully intact plantation mansion, Drayton Hall, is down the road. Built in 1738, the Georgian-Palladian home is in near-original condition, though there are no furnishings (3380 Ashley River Rd./ Hwy. 61, 843/769-2600, draytonhall.org, $14, $8 kids 12 to 18, $6 kids 6 to 11).
"Michelle collects antiques. Where should she shop?"
The best antiques shopping in Charleston is on King Street. The stretch between Market and Broad streets is lined with shops that are great for inspiration—if not for bargains. You'll find less-expensive shops between John and Morris streets. Fifteen minutes away, in Mount Pleasant, is Page's Thieves Market, a scavenger's paradise in a red barn (1460 Ben Sawyer Blvd., 843/884-9672, pagesthievesmarket.net).
In Savannah, The Paris Market & Brocante carries goods with a romantic European flair (36 W. Broughton St., 912/232-1500, theparismarket.com). 37th @ Abercorn Antiques and Design has 6,000 square feet of clocks, crystal, and silver (201 E. 37th St., 912/233-0064).
"We're interested in visiting old graveyards, but we're worried Gabby will have nightmares as a result."
Graveyards in both cities are more like precious gardens—and about as scary as Casper the Friendly Ghost. Skip the tours (the guides try to spook you) and walk through on your own. You'll notice that Charleston has graveyards throughout its historic district. Some of the more well-known ones are at St. Michael's Church (71 Broad St.), The Unitarian Church in Charleston (4 Archdale St.), and St. Philip's Church (142 Church St.).
Savannah's 160-acre Bonaventure Cemetery—the one in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil—is on the river and has landscaped trails (330 Bonaventure Rd.). It's a few miles east of downtown, so you'll want to drive.
"I'm a vegetarian, Michelle wants to eat Southern dishes, and Gabby will need kid food. Where can we all dine?"
Hominy Grill serves the best Southern breakfast in Charleston (207 Rutledge Ave., 843/937-0930, hominygrill.com, from $4.50). Fleet Landing has seafood, fried green tomatoes, a kids' menu, and loaner toys (186 Concord St., 843/722-8100, fleetlanding.net, lunch from $6).
In Savannah, Clary's Cafémakes a classic diner breakfast (4330 Habersham St., 912/351-0302, claryscafesavannah.com, breakfast from $5). At Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room, four generations have cooked family-style meals for lunch guests—on weekdays only—since 1943. Try the fried chicken, mac and cheese, collard greens, banana pudding, and whatever other dishes are passed your way. The line can get rather long, so get there early (107 W. Jones St., 912/232-5997, mrswilkes.com, $16, $8 kids under 8).
"How can we get a table at The Lady & Sons?"
Food Network star Paula Deen's iconic Savannah restaurant only accepts reservations far in advance for parties of 10 or more, but you can make a same-day lunch or dinner reservation starting at 9:30 a.m. It's wise to line up by 9 a.m. Show up later without reservations and you could face a wait of two hours (102 W. Congress St., 912/233-2600, theladyandsons.com, dinner entrées from $19).
"We've been known to travel far (and dare I say wide?) in search of the perfect cupcake..."
At Cupcake, in Charleston, the praline and red-velvet flavors rule (433 King St., 843/853-8181, freshcupcakes.com). And locals and national gourmands say Savannah's Back in the Day Bakery has some of the country's best cupcakes (2403 Bull St., 912/495-9292, backinthedaybakery.com). For a more sophisticated sweets fix, sit down for afternoon tea at the Savannah College of Art and Design's Gryphon Tea Room, which was an old pharmacy before the school's students converted it. They added a few mod touches in 2006 but left the 14 stained-glass windows, mahogany woodwork, and tile floors. Afternoon tea is from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. and includes tea sandwiches, scones, clotted cream, preserves, fruit, sweets, and your choice of tea (337 Bull St., 912/525-5880, scad.edu, $15 per person).
Break up the drive between the two cities by visiting either Beaufort or Bluffton, S.C. Both are historic coastal towns loaded with character.